DENVER -- Whatever Adam Wainwright gave away early as he groped for the feel on his pitches, the St. Louis Cardinals ace got back on his own later -- and then some.
Never once did he lose his grip on the game.
Before Wainwright could get his first out Wednesday at Coors Field, the host Colorado Rockies had a two-run lead and two more runners on base. Wainwright escaped the first, found his curve and pressed on for 7 2/3 superb innings, while tying a career high with three hits. Wainwright drove home the Cardinals' first run, scored the tying run and put the Cardinals ahead for good with an RBI in the fourth inning of a 4-3 victory.
"Showing why he's the ace of our club," manager Mike Matheny said. "He looked like a completely different pitcher from the third on. The more he got into the game, the sharper he got. Then he picks us up offensively. He did it all."
Trevor Rosenthal kept Wainwright (17-9) on track for the win by stranding both of the runners he inherited in the eighth inning, and closer Edward Mujica flirted with disaster before spoiling what could have been the most dramatic moment of the season for the Rockies. Todd Helton, who announced Monday his plan to retire at season's end, struck out with the bases loaded to secure Mujica's 37th save of the season.
Throughout the game -- as Wainwright faltered early or as he soared late -- Matheny couldn't help but see the right-field scoreboard from the dugout. Right beyond Wainwright's head was the score in the San Diego-Pittsburgh game. The Padres, playing on behalf of the Cardinals, rallied for two runs in the ninth to defeat the Pirates. The loss dropped the Pirates (87-65) two games behind the Cardinals (89-63) in the National League Central with 10 games remaining.
The lead is the Cardinals' largest since late July.
"You can't ignore" the scoreboard, Matheny said.
The win did not come without significant complications for the Cardinals. First baseman Matt Adams left the game in the seventh inning because of a pain in his problematic right elbow. Already without Allen Craig (foot sprain), the Cardinals are bracing for Adams' absence. The rookie slugger has been bothered by the elbow at times, flexing the joint after swings and receiving treatment. Matheny said Adams had been experiencing "little zingers" in the elbow. A year ago, Adams had a bone spur and bone chips removed from the same elbow because they had been causing pain and numbness through his forearm.
The Cardinals did not get a scan of the joint late Wednesday night, though the first baseman could be ticketed for an MRI scan to determine if additional damage is apparent.
"I've been dealing with some soreness in there," Adams said. "That one swing (in the sixth inning) did it. It felt weak and I was unable to swing again. The changeup off the end of the bat did it. We're going to continue to do treatment and hope it gets better."
Earlier this season Wainwright took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against Colorado, and no active pitcher has been better against the Rockies. He entered Wednesday's game with a 1.17 ERA in 10 games. At lofty Coors Field, his ERA was a subterranean 1.08.
The ballpark is not that forgiving.
A well-struck double and an array of well-placed singles left Wainwright with a 2-0 deficit in the first inning and two runners on base. Troy Tulowitzki's single to right field scored both runs. Wainwright escaped the inning with a double play and a line-out to Adams.
He continued to shift his grip and arm slot, looking for his curveball. The mile-high elevation of Coors is famous for torturing pitchers and changing their stuff. Wainwright responded by changing his hold on his curveball until it had that familiar break. Then he took off. He had seven strikeouts by the end of the fifth inning. He froze hitters with his curve. He got them chasing it in the dirt. He got the NL's leading hitter, Michael Cuddyer.
He pitched most of the game with a lead no greater than two runs.
Wainwright's double scored Daniel Descalso in the first inning, and Wainwright tied the score, 2-2, when he scored on the first of Matt Carpenter's two hits. Wainwright added an RBI in the fourth, and Yadier Molina drove home Matt Holliday for the difference. Wainwright made it last until the eighth.
"I locked it in and it was a completely different ballgame," Wainwright said. "At this place it's a very fine margin for error. It's a place that if you go into it and think your stuff won't work, your stuff won't work. You cannot get mentally defeated by a tough park. You have to trust your ability and trust your stuff and trust your ability to make adjustments."
In the ninth, Matheny trusted his closer.
A leadoff single put the tying run on base. The Cardinals put the go-ahead run on base voluntarily. Cuddyer had left the game with a bruised forearm, so with two out and first base open the Cardinals faced Tulowitzki without Cuddyer as an enforcer. Matheny had Mujica throw two pitches to Tulowitzki and see if he could entice the All-Star shortstop to get himself out. He didn't. The next two pitches came as an intentional walk. Cuddyer's replacement, Charlie Culberson, smashed a hard ground ball off Descalso's chest to load the bases.
"I wouldn't put that in just anybody's hands, but I would put it in Edward's and Yadi's hands," Matheny said. "Not very often are we going to do that."
The game found Helton, who has received a standing ovation with almost every at-bat this week, the start of his farewell tour. Mujica tested Helton with the split-finger changeup that every opposing hitter knows is coming. With two strikes, Mujica elevated with a fastball that he said surprised Helton. The Rockies first baseman swung.
There was no joy in Denver.
The mighty Helton had struck out.
"That last pitch," Wainwright said, "was like a thing of art, just perfect."
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